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Engineer Rooting for Survival of Palm Tree Growing in Arlington Construction Zone

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Published October 16, 2009 By Jacquielynn Floyd


This is an improbable love story about an unlikely pair, a buttoned-down engineer from Carrollton and an exotic outsider living in a bleak Arlington construction zone. It's about the tensile grace of perseverance.

Richard McMullen first spotted what he has come to call the Division Street Palm more than three years ago when he was on his way to visit an academic colleague at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The tree, a picture-perfect specimen of Sabal texana, the South Texas palm, typically grows in the lush, fertile lowlands of the Rio Grande Valley.

This one was growing – flourishing, incredibly – hard up against the Division Street bridge on a garbage-strewn embankment overlooking State Highway 360.

It was a particularly unlovely stretch of industrial landscape then, and it's even more so today – a noisy, heavily trafficked site rumbling with the racket of highway construction, speeding traffic and freight trains on the nearby railroad tracks.

It looks like a pretty hopeless spot to grow a patch of pokeweed, much less a semitropical palm. Yet there it was, undulating lazily in the breeze.

McMullen was captivated. He still is.

"Look at it!" he enthused when we went to look at it this week. He had to shout over the throaty growl of bulldozers gouging a site for a new overpass just a few feet away. "It's a gem, in the middle of all this dirt, this industrial development. It's thriving!"

McMullen, a 58-year-old researcher with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, is a precise and analytical man, not usually given to extravagant emotion or sweeping sentiment. Yet the lone palm, incongruously rooted in gummy, debris-littered clay among slabs of discarded concrete, became an obsession.

"It's just incredible that it could grow to this size in a place like this," he said. "It must have super genes."

McMullen took photos of the palm and sent them out as greeting cards to friends and family. He drove acquaintances out to admire it. During the worst of the summer heat, he filled a half-dozen hardware-store barrels with water and drove to Arlington in the predawn darkness to irrigate its roots.

He slipped into the familiar habit of calling the tree an "old friend."

He contacted arborists to talk about the palm, to discuss its odds for survival. One of them was Steve Houser, who chairs the Dallas Urban Forest Advisory Committee.

"To have an affection for something that's a natural asset – that should be more common," Houser said. "That tree is showing us that it's able to endure a lot. Maybe people look at it and think, 'This is indicative of my life, trying to survive in this city.' I've got to respect that."

As hardy as it is, though, the palm tree cannot withstand the evolution of progress indefinitely. The Texas Department of Transportation, which is rebuilding the frenetic Highway 360-Division Street interchange, plans to tear it out when the old bridge is demolished to make way for a new structure, scheduled for completion by late 2011.

In an e-mail from project engineers forwarded to McMullen after he contacted TxDOT about the tree, he was told its preservation is "not a major concern" because "it is non-native to this area and not the kind of tree we usually plant in our ROW [right-of-way]."

He's not sure where to turn next, he said. "I'll take any ideas I can get." What he really wants is to see the tree relocated to a more hospitable location, someplace it at least has a shot at survival.

Which is not impossible, Houser said. Sabal texana has a compact root system and is easily transplanted.

What could drive the cost of relocation into the thousands, he said, would be closing the bridge and clearing the debris around the palm's base.

McMullen would like to see the tree transplanted elsewhere in Arlington but would gladly have it at his suburban Carrollton home, as well. He just wants it to live.

"It's a beauty, isn't it?" he said, as contented as if we had been strolling in a verdant valley, rich with the scent of tropical flowers, instead of lingering unnervingly close to a roaring stream of traffic that belched diesel fumes in the chilly, gray air.

"It's an old friend to me," he said. "It's a marvel."

A follow-up article was written December 15, 2009 by Jacquielynn Ford entitled "Gritty Orphaned Palm Tree Gets New Home in Carrollton."

About the author

Ms. Jacquielynn Floyd

Ms. Floyd is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News.

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